Al Qaeda:  Is Radical Ideology a greater threat than Violence?

Al Qaeda and many other fringe-radical religious terrorist groups do not fit the traditional definition of a terrorist group. What is different about them and how do we tackle them?

Al Qaeda:  Is Radical Ideology a greater threat than Violence?
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By Ararat Kostanian

Radical Jihadist ideologies and Violence draw significant attention from politicians, security experts, and the international arena. It is vital to understand that radical jihadist movements stem from religious doctrines and are not a result of historical oppression or victimhood of any particular religious, ethnic, linguistic group.

 There are two distinct methods of looking at the threat posed by radical groups such as Al Qaeda, they are

1) an operational approach and

2) an ideological approach.

The primary threat factor is the terrorist attacks, abductions, killings by Al Qaeda, the more abstract threat is the fundamentalist philosophy of Al Qaeda.

 The classical understanding of terrorism and Al Qaeda can be relevant within this theory of political Philosophy. According to Michael Walzer, a political theorist, terrorism is not violence per se but a war tactic. Jihadist radical organizations such as Hamas and Armenian terrorist group ASALA, whose action and violence are often misunderstood as a domestic issue rather than an ideological organization that poses a serious threat to global security. Counterinsurgency experts like David Kilcullen note that the rise of the Al Qaeda terrorist group and its impact on international terrorism networks pose a serious challenge to global counterterrorism measures. He opines that the ideological seeds sowed by the radical religious groups are hard to be weeded out from the general population, even if the operational part of violence perpetrated can be curtailed. This article will focus on Al Qaeda's ideology to show the rationale behind their terror attacks, Al Qaeda's motives for terrorism, and their worldview, which explains their actions.

 Violence vs. Ideology: Which is a greater threat?

The classical understanding of terrorism among experts is described as an attack by a group of people against innocents. For example, William Safire mentions "…persuasion by fear; the intimidation of society by a small group, using as its weapon that society's repugnance at the murder of innocents." Similarly, the Oxford Dictionary gives the core understanding of the term as "…life-threatening actions perpetrated by politically motivated self-appointed substate groups." 

The definition focuses, therefore, on the actions of the terrorist groups than the ideology which propagates such violence and justifies bloodshed.

 This generic definition only highlights the bombings and casualties of al-Qaeda, be it the World Trade Center attack in 1993 or the attack on the Pentagon in 2001, and the attack on a train in Madrid in 2004. However, Terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda view the general public as their enemy than collateral damage. Each Al Qaeda attack was more than a provocation against any government or group of people for the following reasons: first, from Walzer's explanation, civilians are not seen as innocent by Al Qaeda but as a subject of the battle. This is further corroborated by Bin Laden's speeches where he generalizes the US government to its people as an enemy. In other words, Al-Qaeda considers that the entire population of its adversary as an enemy and an object of attack.

 Furthermore, as Barack Mendelssohn puts it, "Al Qaeda's Ideology not only challenges the sovereignty of specific states but also brings under attack some of the principles and institutions of a state. Al Qaeda rejects the authority of states". Al Qaeda is not a group of terrorists who attack the innocents in this manner but a transnational organization aiming to establish an Islamic caliphate.

For instance, in the Armenian Secret Army For The Liberation of Armenia (ASALA), the terrorist group attacked those Turkish politicians who denied the Armenian Genocide. Unlike radical Islamic terrorist groups, ASALA's objective was to garner support for its cause( Armenian Question)rather than antagonizing the entire Turkish population. ASALA does not instigate the Armenian diaspora to start a battle against Turkey and its allies. In contrast, Al Qaeda's ideological threat comes from its call for armed jihad against the West. It works to instigate insurgencies worldwide with ideological motives derived from Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian Islamist. 

 Al Qaeda's strategy consists of; preaching a fundamentalist version of Islam, overthrow Arab regimes that Al Qaeda considers as not Islamic, evacuate nonbelievers from the Arabic peninsula, establish an Islamic Caliphate worldwide with the help of other radical Islamic groups, and so on. It does not aim to address any socio-economic and socio-political issues, such as poverty and political rights. Instead, Al Qaeda and their offshoots, such as the Taliban and ISIS, seek to have a submissive population under a repressive Islamic regime. Its fanatical cause is proselytizing political Islam as it perceives rather than fighting for any social justice within the nation-state framework. This ideological purpose to re-capture Muslim-ruled land is evident with Hamas, Lakshar-e-Taiba, and many other radical Islamic terrorist groups.

Furthermore, the threat of Al Qaeda's religious indoctrination and perpetrating terror in the minds of young Muslims across the globe have amplified with the advent of modern technology, the internet, and social media platforms. Abdel Bari Atwan mentions the importance of the internet in Al Qaeda's strategy and the existence of 4,500 jihadi websites which bring ideologically similar people together and advocate the believers to join the religious jihad against nonbelievers. The threat is not only the Violence emanating from these terrorist groups but also the radical ideology, a distorted fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. Rohan Gunaratna puts it, "Today, Al Qaeda's real power is the disparate groups it had trained, financed, armed and most importantly ideologized. The Al Qaeda network (Al Qaeda group + its associated groups) and ideologically affiliated cells comprising the Al Qaeda movement are the catalysts driving the terrorist group." Thus, Kilcullen advocates the importance of counterinsurgency instead of counterterrorism because Al Qaeda is well developed and seated within the society, and its ideological base and the support-system are robust. However, the journalist says that the Al Qaeda ideology has not become a dominant interpretation of Islam, leaving the region and its vast followers untouched. 

The Al Qaeda ideology not only considers foreign presence in Muslim land as an attack on Muslim world and Muslim way of living, it equally challenges the Governments of Islamic Republics, from Saudi Arabia, Sudan, to Indonesia. The existing political and religious structure within the nation-state framework is an obstacle for the radical Islamist group's aim of uniting the Ummah. Its resistance to US- House of Saud economic cooperation, as Quintan Wiktorowicz and John Kalnter observed as "the jihadis charged the Saudis and other regimes in the Muslim world with allegations of un-Islamic behaviour and thus apostasy, and called for a jihad to remove them." Al Qaeda even threatened the Saudi government and challenged its legitimacy to rule.  Similarly, Al Qaeda radicals were in disagreement with the Saudi regime due to the different vision of dominating the Islamic world. For example, Bin Laden accused the Saudi regime of merely acting as an extension to the American foreign policy and ignoring the Islamic causes in protecting the Muslim rights in Palestine and Iraq. As a result, Al Qaeda actively used the internet to push Saudi Government propaganda as noted by the Syrian President Bashar "…Al Qaeda's extremist Ideology is now attracting increased support, expanding its networks among a new generation of supporters … in the Sunni Muslim world." Thus the ideas and statements mentioned above reflect the emergence of the cold and hot war between the Radicalized Muslim world and the rest. This had shaken the Muslim majority nations. Thus, King Abdullah II of Jordan, threatened by growing fundamentalism, arranged a get-together session with Muslim scholars to condemn the ideology imposed by radical extremist movements. Saudi authorities have started anti-radicalization campaigns, which are aimed to educate the public and protect the population from radical ideology.

The radical Islamists' strategy is to target the Muslim population in mosques, the internet, associations and appoint key social figures and religious scholars to spread the fundamentalist's version of the religion. To segregate them from modern life and nonbelievers, which are an obstacle for Al Qaeda type organizations in spreading their hatred and justifying Violence against the West and nonbelievers. For instance, at the heart of the Madrid Bombings case is the Islamic Cultural Centre known as Mosque 30, which spreads radical hate-mongering Violence instigating ideology. Similarly, radicals have created a ghetto in London in Beeston's Mosque where jihad/holy war was taught. Furthermore, in the US, fundamentalist religious NGOs are acting as a cover in spreading radical Islamic ideology. Al Qaeda, for instance, views the US as an enemy not only because of US forces occupying Muslim nations but also because the radical ideology it propagates is incompatible with the western culture and thereby declared the West as an enemy of Islam.

It is evident from the examples above that the real threat is emerging from the ideology and those advocating it, learning and practising a radical extremist version of Islam. From the right to Burqa to Halal rights, the Muslims in Europe have been radicalized to exclude themselves from the greater society and demand religion-specific exclusive rights, which go against secularism. The radical elements propagate young Muslims to resist Western cultural influence and refuse assimilation. Thus, the core threat that comes from the radicals is creating a radical Islamic identity in different regions of the world, rather than the targeted attacks. Many European nations like the Dutch see the threat as a security-related issue, ignoring the radicals' will to isolate the Muslim population from the greater population, resulting in demographic problems. Moreover, the Bush Administration's blind policy of equating terrorism with Islam and its inability to establish good relations with the Muslim world amplified the intensity of conflict between Al Qaeda and the Western civilization.

To conclude, as David Kilcullen said, counterterrorism will be inefficient in dealing with Al Qaeda because it uses its ideology and mingles with the tribes that it operates within. Hence, Al Qaeda and many other fringe-radical religious terrorist groups do not fit the traditional definition of a terrorist group. In dealing with such groups, the authorities should challenge the ideology and inform society about the dangers of radical religious groups.              

Ararat Kostanian is an expert on Middle Eastern studies and International Relations. He has worked as an expert at the Turkish Department, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Armenia and currently works as a Junior Fellow and a PhD candidate at the Institute of Oriental Studies, National Academy of Sciences of Armenia.                                                                 

Disclaimer: The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation and the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct.